This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series: ‘Pierced For Our Transgressions’ (Ovey et al)
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 1 – Exodus 12
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 2 – Leviticus 16
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 3 – Isaiah 53
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 4 – Mark
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 5 – John’s Gospel
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 6 – Romans
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 7 – Galatians
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 8 – 1 Peter
- Objections to Penal Substitution 1 – Bible
- Objections to Penal Substitution 2 – Culture
- Objections to penal substitution 3 – violence
- Objections to penal substitution 4 – justice
- Objections to penal substitution 5 – God
- Objections to penal substitution 6 – the Christian life
- Substutionary atonement: a note to preachers
Critics of the doctrine of penal substitution, as well as a number of its more thoughtful supporters, have commented that the illustrations of it that preachers use are often misleading or even inept.
Tom Smail, for example, says that the story of ‘the judge who pronounces sentence on the criminal and then divests himself of his robe, comes down from his judgement seat and says, “I will bear this punishment in your place” is, in terms of justice, a quite scandalous story.’
Another illustration features God as a railroad switchman, who, on seeing that a train is rushing headlong towards a large crowd of people, causes it to switch tracks even though it will kill his own son.
Then there is the story from the book Miracle on the River Kwai in which an innocent prisoner-of-war takes responsibility for some missing tools in order to spare his fellow-prisoners. He is executed, only for the tools to be found after all. However noble this may be as an example of human self-sacrifice, it clearly represents God as sadistically vengeful, the human race as innocent, and Christ as senselessly killed.
According to D.A. Carson, law-court analogies of penal substitution tend to suffer from a number of serious limitations. In particular, they represent God as the administrator of a legal system, and sin as a crime against ‘the law’, or ‘the state’, or ‘the people’. In such a system, for the judge to step down and take the punishment would itself be deeply unjust. But, in truth, sin is not merely an offence against some impersonal system: it is an offence against God himself. ‘God is the offended party as well as the impartial judge.’
Whereas illustrations such as these represent atonement as a violation of God’s justice, Paul teaches in Rom 3:25f that Christ’s death is, in fact, a demonstration of divine justice.
Even the illustrations mentioned above, for all their defects, have elements of truth in them. The law-court scene cited by Smail illustrates God’s willingness to forgive. The railway story illustrates the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. And the story from Miracle on the River Kwai illustrates Christ’s willingness to die on behalf of others. But the defects and inadequacies in such stories cannot be ignored.
Of course, no illustration can provide a perfect or complete analogy. Even a biblical analogy, such as the picture of God’s Servatn being led as a lamb to the slaughter (Isa 53:7) does not tell the whole story, for a lamb is passive, whereas Christ went determinedly to his death.
Preachers should accordingly, choose their illustrations of atonement carefully, and take care not to press them too far. The following questions may help when selecting illustrations:-
1. Does the illustration deny the active, consenting involvement of the Father and the Son? Does the illustration represent Father and Son as working with, or against, one another? If the illustration suggests that Father and Son are opposed to one another, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is undermined.
2. Does the illustration imply a conflict between God’s law and God’s will? Does it represent God as restricted or constrained by his own law? From a biblical perspective, God’s law is an expression of his own character and will.
3. Does the illustration imply that God’s action is averting our punishment is unjust? Does it represent God as trying to find a way of circumventing his own law? Biblically, the atonement is a demonstration of God’s law, not a violation of it.
4. Does the illustration imply a conflict between God’s wrath and God’s will? Is his wrath represented as something outside of himself, which he struggles to control? According to Scripture, God’s wrath is an expression of his holy character, his settled opposition to human sin.
5. Does the illustration imply a conflict between God’s attributes? Do the demands of God’s holiness conflict with those of his love? The Bible teaches that the cross is an equal expression of God’s love and his justice, rather than a conquering of the demands of his justice by his love.
6. Does the illustration imply that God did not foreordain Christ’s atoning work? In biblical teaching, the cross is not an emergency measure taken to meet an unforeseen set of circumstances, but is, rather, the climax of his eternal of salvation.
7. Does the illustration imply that no-one actually benefits from God’s saving work? Does it imply that the atonement is merely a transaction between the Father and the Son? According to Scripture, the cross actually saves people, as well as glorifying God.
To summarise: some illustrations are so flawed that they should be avoided altogether. But, on the other hand, no one illustration can capture the whole meaning of atonement. Let us choose and use carefully.
Based on Jeffery, Ovey & Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions, IVP, 2005, pp329-336.